(Alexandre O. Philippe, USA, 2019, 104 mins)
Memory: The Origins of Alien, Alexandre O. Philippe's 2019 documentary on the making of Ridley Scott's 1979 film, was not without merit. In fact, it was pretty interesting, though a filmmaker would have to make a concerted effort to produce a dull doc about a sci-fi/horror hybrid as exciting as Alien. It was also an attractive work, in terms of the cinematography, editing, and graphic design. That can't be said about all making-of documentaries, especially those made by inexperienced or under-funded filmmakers.
It wasn't everything it could be, though. In addition to the extraneous interludes--a structuring scheme featuring costumed actors that means to play like a sort of epilogue to Alien--the film lacked any present-day interviews with Scott or Sigourney Weaver. It also covered some of the same ground as Frank Pavich's fascinating documentary about the unmaking of Jodorowsky's Dune through the profiles of special effects supervisor Dan O'Bannon and Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who designed Alien's insatiable alien.
William Friedkin, however, worked with Phillippe on this essay film about the making of The Exorcist. If Memory represented Philippe's take on Scott's film, Leap of Faith represents Friedkin's take on his own, since he provides the voiceover. In that sense, it's like Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's overview of Brian De Palma's filmography, in which their subject appears to share directing duties with the duo behind the camera. When it comes to born storytellers, like De Palma and Friedkin, this seems like the way to go.
Friedkin starts off by talking about Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1955 resurrection drama Ordet as a significant influence on his 1973 film, even though he drew from William Peter Blatty's preexisting text for the narrative. He doesn't mention it, but Lars von Trier also drew from Ordet for 1996's Breaking the Waves, an intimate relationship story different from The Exorcist in most every respect--except for the focus on faith.
From there, he talks about a Chicago childhood in which hard-edged pictures, like Orson Welles's Citizen Kane and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, loomed large. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be a director. By the time Blatty's 1971 novel came his way, he saw an opportunity to combine his interests in fate and faith into one film. He started by rejecting Blatty's conventionally-structured script, and writing one which more closely adhered to the original novel, including the Iraq prologue, which everyone wanted him to cut (Blatty, a former reporter, drew from personal experience for that section). Friedkin held fast. Josh and Benny Safdie would borrow the prologue idea for Uncut Gems, in which they trace a bad-luck blood opal on its journey from the mountains of Ethiopia to a New York gem shop.
As he goes on, it's clear that Friedkin has spent a lot of time talking about this film, and not because he sounds bored or rehearsed. On the contrary, he clearly enjoys revisiting it. It's more that he speaks like a visiting guest lecturer as he makes connections between other thematically-aligned films that preceded The Exorcist, like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which establishes the textures of the everyday world before peeling back the layers to reveal some of its darker corners. This isn't a critique; it's more that some viewers may find the abundance of narration wearying, though the dozens of film clips well illustrate his words (Philippe made an entire film, 2017's 78/52, specifically about Psycho's shower scene).
By other films, I'm including Friedkin's own, which is why even The Exorcist agnostics may find Philippe's film of interest, because he can't really get into the weeds without also discussing The French Connection, Sorcerer, The Brink's Job, and Cruising, which employed similar techniques, like subliminal sounds, momentary flashbacks, and surrealistic effects. Unlike Kubrick, of whom he's clearly an admirer, he's a self-described "one-take guy." He also encouraged cinematographer Owen Roizman to continue filming after scenes appeared to be over. He was looking for spontaneity and surprise.
That leads to a discussion of the actors, all of whom rose to the occasion, including Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, Lee J. Cobb, real-deal priest William O'Malley, and playwright Jason Miller (That Championship Season), who replaced Stacy Keach at the last minute. Friedkin admits that it took some of them awhile to get to the heart of their characters. A sticking point for Von Sydow? "I don't think I believe in God," he told the startled director, who cast him largely on the basis of films, like Ingmar Bergman's The Passion of Anna and Nicholas Ray's King of Kings, in which his characters spoke directly to God.
This is all well and good, but there would be no movie without Linda Blair, and Friedkin has nothing to say about her. Though he collaborated closely on this documentary, the director is ultimately responsible for its content. If Friedkin didn't bring her up, why didn't Philippe? It's a disappointing oversight, not least because Friedkin goes into great detail about Mercedes McCambridge who provides the voice of the devil once it takes possession of Blair's 12-year-old character, Regan. It's a masterstroke of casting, and McCambridge deserves her props, but Blair does, too. I was eight years old when I first saw the film, and I doubt it would have affected me the way it did if Blair hadn't been so believable. She was good in other films, too, but she's rarely gotten the credit she deserves, so it's sad to see this trend continue, particularly in a documentary about her most famous role.
So, it's a flaw, but the film ends on a note that almost makes up for it as Friedkin admits that The Exorcist is a flawed film. For as much pride as he takes in it, and for all his gratitude for the many happy accidents that went into its making, both he and Blatty believe that the climactic moment in the film, when the devil possesses Jason Miller's priest, Karras, doesn't make complete sense if you think about it. I take his point, but it makes emotional sense, and that's why so many viewers take it on face value.
As a film about The Exorcist, Leap of Faith feels incomplete, and not just because there's no mention of Linda Blair, but there's no acknowledgment of the sequels and prequels that followed or The Ninth Configuration, the 1980 William Peter Blatty-directed film that brought former Father Karras rivals, Stacy Keach and Jason Miller, together. As a film about William Friedkin's interests and philosophies, however, it gets the job done. In that sense, it's more of an introduction than an overview, but it's an insightful one.
Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is out now on Shudder. Images from Warner Home Video (Max von Sydow approaching the MacNeil home and Stacy Keach and Jason Miller in The Ninth Configuration), Everett Collection (Sigourney Weaver as Ripley with Jones the cat), A24 via AP (Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, and Lakeith Stanfield in Uncut Gems), and Warner Brothers/Getty Images (Friedkin directing Linda Blair).